By Jonny Grave
No one ever talks about the War of 1812.
It’s the two-and-a-half-year conflict that threatened the stability of a newly-formed nation, ended the lives of thousands, kickstarted the political career of Andrew Jackson, and gave us our National Anthem. Somehow, in spite of all this, it goes overlooked and ignored through most 8th grade American History textbooks. In a mansion on New York Ave, men ended this war at a desk with feathers.
During the war, about two centuries and eight weeks ago, our gorgeous city on a hill was also torched by the British, being one of only three attacks on American soil (the others being the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the attacks on the World Trade Center). Dolley Madison and her servants fled the executive mansion with the portrait of George Washington and the valuable pieces of china, narrowly escaping the invading British forces.
Enter: The honorable John Tayloe III, plantation owner, ship builder, Federalist, personal friend of George Washington, avid racehorse enthusiast, wealthiest man in Virginia, and slave owner. Tayloe offered his mansion to the Madisons as a temporary home in 1814 while the White House was re-built. James and Dolley Madison stayed here until the end of the war in 1815. This home still stands, and it is one of the most curious historical sites in the District.
Around 1797, Tayloe purchased a small plot land on what was to be the West end of the city. He worked with Henry Thornton, the first Architect of the Capitol, to construct a unique, one-of-a-kind mansion. The founding fathers modeled their republic after the political ideals of the Greeks and Romans. They felt their architecture should reflect their politics. The Octagon House was constructed using a radical design, breaking away from the traditional and popular Georgian style, and moving into Federal architecture.
Before the Madisons moved in, the Octagon House was already established as a social hotspot. Tayloe was an ambitious entrepreneur, eager to show off his status to the gentry of the new American republic. Parties were a weekly engagement. The museum staff does a remarkable job of documenting the building’s history through the ages. Art from Peter Waddell’s carries the viewer back to the way the mansion may have felt in the days Washington, Adams, and Madison. With the help of a stereomicroscope, the curators have restored the walls to what is believed to be their original color. The placards on the knob of nearly every door help explain the significance of each room, piece by piece.
But, what’s unsettling about this gorgeous mansion is the clear-as-day dichotomy between the indentured staff and the inhabitants. Walking past the grand foyer, the sprawling spiral staircase, the elevated columns, and windows flooding the rooms with light, there is an entire universe behind the walls and under the floors, hidden conveniently in the shadow of the gentry.
These are the stairs and kitchens and cellars where the Tayloe family’s slaves and servants hauled laundry and chamber pots, cooked and prepared food, uncorked and decanted wine for their masters’ parties upstairs. The house wasn’t just a house. It was a well-oiled machine for entertaining the formative members of the District’s elite– the very same elite who fought for freedom and independence from the British monarchy, and kept slaves in the basement.
The history here runs deep, and the air is thick with stories. It’s open Thursday through Saturday, and is free to enter.